Child Poverty in Britain.

On August 24th 2013 an article in the Guardian examined the record of the UK Government in addressing child poverty and accused successive governments of failure. While it is true that the last Labour government failed to meet its’ own statutory target as set out in the Child Poverty Act (2010), which committed them and future governments to reducing the rate of child poverty in the UK to 10% by 2020-21, they did reduce it over their period of office. Between 1998 and 2011 Labour lifted more that 1.1 million children out of poverty through a combination of measures to improve employment rates among lone parents and an increase in the levels of benefits paid to families with children. Since the 2011 General Election rates of child poverty have increased at an alarming rate and are now equal to (or slightly above) the 1998 level. According to the Child Poverty Action Group the rate of child poverty is set to rise by a further 600,000 by 2015 with an estimated 4.5 million children living in poverty by 2020.

Graphs showing the levels (and growth) of child poverty in the UK suggest one consistent factor that leads to a rise in child poverty, essentially it rises under a Conservative Government only to be brought down again by Labour. The biggest rise since the war happened under the Thatcher government when levels of child poverty rose from around 15% in 1982 to 29% in 1992. Under Labour the level was reduced to close to 12% and stuck at that level until the election of the Tory coalition government which has managed (in a mere 3 years) to return it to 1992 levels. As suggested by the Child Poverty Action Group this is largely due to the austerity policies of the current government. A quick search for articles on the impact of George Osborne’s austerity measures reveals their impact on children and poor families. The Daily Mail reports that 1 in 10 parents miss a meal to feed their children while reports from the BBC refer to four out of five teachers being aware of children who are missing out on eating breakfast. Increasing numbers of families are becoming reliant on food banks as wages and benefits fall with the Trussell Trust reporting a tripling in the number of users between 2010 and 2013. Such is the level of desperation in some families that mothers in some parts of the country are turning to prostitution to feed their children.

This is a picture that would have been familiar to the McMillan sisters, Rachel and Margaret, over 100 years ago when they were working in Peckham and Deptford to alleviate the worst effects of poverty on poor families through a combination of health initiatives and education. They recognised the impact of poverty (in particular food poverty) on children and their families and were instrumental in bringing in the provision of Free School meals. In many respects, Labour’s SureStart initiative replicated much of their approach, in particular the concept of working with families in an integrated or holistic way. SureStart was partly responsible too for the reduction of child poverty under Labour but is now under threat as the Government ruthlessly cuts spending. It would also have been familiar to Maude Pember-Reeves who in 1913, studied poor families in Lambeth (London) chronicling a situation that looks very familiar today.

I have always believed that the sign of a civilised society is that it looks after the weak and vulnerable but at present the UK government seems to be more concerned with looking after the richest in society while abandoning the poorest and most vulnerable to their fate. They seem to have borrowed the Victorian mantra that would have been familiar to the McMillans and Dickens i.e. that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough. The phrase “the undeserving poor” has once more reared its ugly head through attacks on those in receipt of benefits or state handouts. It has become acceptable to vilify those who are in receipt of state support despite the fact that most of those who are on benefit are also in low paid work or employed on zero hours contracts.

It is significant that the four countries that have education systems that are ranked among the best in the world also have the smallest income gap between the rich and the poor. Education offers the best chance anyone will have to escape poverty but in the UK a combination of child poverty and an education system that is better designed for the 18th century means that millions of children living in poverty in the UK will remain poor and will grow up to renew the cycle, Something needs to change!

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